[Excerpted from a WWII edition of Coast Guard Magazine]
Five Months on the Greenland Ice Cap
LIEUTENANT (j.g.) Gerard A. Hearn, of the United States Coast Guard, carved a colorful paragraph in the post-war history books when he and a small group of Coast Guardsmen and army men stepped on Greenland’s frozen shores to enact a drama as stirring as it is simple.
Charged with the task of rescuing U. S. Army fliers stranded on the Greenland Ice Cap, Lieutenant Hearn and his companions spent five and a half months on the world’s largest island patrolling acres of frozen ground and treacherous glaciers. Although they did not succeed in rescuing the men they set out to find, 25 other fliers, including a group of Canadians, were brought back to safety by the intrepid little party.
This was in December, 1942, and Lieutenant Hearn then Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Hearn was attached to the Coast Guard cutter Northland on the Greenland patrol. On the third day of the month, Hearn, along with five other Coast Guardsmen, was detached from duty aboard his ship and put ashore on Greenland. Other than the men in their party and the men they rescued, they saw not another human until May 20, when they again rejoined their shipmates.
Recently promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.) from the rank of Ensign, the Coast Guard officer is presently attached to the Eighth Naval District Medical Office, in New Orleans.
As Hearn tells it, he and the members of the rescue party lived in “an overgrown crate, about 30 feet square.” This was their home and before their departure, the wood hut had been buried under 16 feet of snow. A small boat that landed the party was tied up next to the hut and eventually pushed under nearly 20 feet of ice and snow.
For patrol work, the rescuers used Eskimo dogs, those hardy “Huskies” which are used in the polar regions.
Explaining that the men they were seeking were not “more than 20 or 30 miles away,” Hearn said that it was impossible to get to them by traversing a straight line. Glaciers, crevasses and dangerous ice formations made it necessary to seek another route, which made the distance much greater. Out on patrol when the snow storms abated, the men ate in the snow, slept in the snow, and lived in the snow.
“When we were out with the dogs,” Hearn related, “we would stay for days and sleeping was a matter of rolling out our bags, digging a hole in the snow and crawling in.”
FOR THE RECORDS
As proof of the intense cold, Hearn told of a time when nine of their 15 dogs were frozen to death in a 100-mile-an-hour snow storm. That, he explained, was something for the books, for the canines are usually impervious to the weather.
Hearn, who is a veteran of 12 years’ service in the Coast Guard, all of which were spent as a pharmacist’s mate, explained that on this mission it was his job to minister medical needs of the men. In line with this work, he amputated two toes, pulled two teeth, and “delivered pups of an Eskimo dog.”
The amputation was the result of a patrol sortie during which Ensign Richard L. Fuller officer in charge of the party had two of his pedal extremities frozen. Hearn performed the operation with all the skill of a trained surgeon, and today Lieutenant Fuller is in excellent health.
“The teeth extractions were just routine,” Hearn said, “and because we had little novacaine. I imagine the man must have suffered a little.”
The Coast Guard officer described as the worst menace to the party the possibility of them being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from their stoves as they slept in their hut. When the ventilators filled with snow, this danger was always present. However, during the violent storms which swept the island, their stoves went out and they spent days on end in their sleeping bags.
When the party ran out of gasoline, the lived by candlelight and Hearn remembers “how hard it was to play cards by one candle.” Acey-ducey, cribbage and poker were their only diversions, and they played these games for “penny ante.”
The most amazing fact of the whole five months on the island, Hearn declared, was the absence of sickness in the men. “Not one man had a cold during our stay,” he said.
Another member of the rescue party Boatswain’s Mate First Class Stanley P. Preble, USCG is now stationed at the quarter barges in Algiers, La., and he and Lieutenant Hearn still enjoy swapping tales of their adventure.
“Preble was one of the men who had his tooth extracted,” Hearn recalled, “and then another time, he and four of our men were nearly lost when they went 90 degrees off their course on patrol.
Most exciting event of the Greenland stay was the Christmas Day dinner, three turkeys, cooked and stuffed and dropped to the little group from an army plane. “I’ll never forget that day,” Hearn declared, “for we would not have believed it was Christmas if we hadn’t had the turkeys.”
Food for other days was canned rations, and the men took turns cooking and doing KP duty, because “on that island, rank was forgotten and every man was his shipmate’s equal.”
For his efforts on this hazardous mission, Lieutenant Hearn has been commended by Admiral R. E. Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet. Following is the commendation:
“The Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, notes with pleasure and gratification the report of your performance of duty at the Beach Head Station, East Greenland, from 4 December, 1942, to 8 May, 1943, when you served as a volunteer member of a rescue party.
“You with the other members of a small party, made valiant attempts to locate a crashed Coast Guard plane and to rescue nine U. S. Army officers and men stranded on the Greenland Ice Cap. You met with courage the dangers of winter weather, extreme cold, and treacherous ice conditions which prevailed during your long period at the Beach Head Station.
“The Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, commends you for your courage, energetic and cheerful cooperation, and devotion to duty.”
In addition to the commendation ribbon, Hearn wears the American Defense ribbon, the American theatre ribbon, the Middle East ribbon, the Coast Guard good conduct ribbon, and rifle and pistol ribbons. Also, he has been commended by the army officer in charge of the rescue operations in Greenland. For their work in rescuing the Canadian fliers, the crew members of the Northland were presented a silver service by the Canadian Government.
LIEUT. (j.g.) G. A. HEARN was a veteran Coast Guardsman who rose through the ranks. Formerly a pharmacist’s mate, he performed much medical service at important Coast Guard units ashore and afloat.
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